An eye for an eye: working on death row


By Jake Filson

Before departing to the land of freedom and opportunity to assist capital defence attorneys on death row (oh the irony), I was warned not to enter into a discussion with Texans on socio-political issues, especially the death penalty. This struck me as strange, but I presumed it was because I would appear as the archetypal self-righteous European liberal (this wouldn’t be far from the truth). However, although this might have been a reason, what I encountered when I eventually dropped my guard after a few drinks in my local offered a justification to such advice…

I had met this gentleman on a number of occasions at the bar; his role was the friendly American alcoholic and mine was the young English law graduate on a legal internship. “Oil and Gas”, was my usual response when someone delved into my job description. This was a believable reply because every ex-pat in Houston was working in that industry, and the last thing I wanted to do while enjoying a cold crisp beer was elaborate on my distaste for capital punishment and embark on the indignant defence of poor civilians. However, on this occasion I revealed my dirty secret – I worked in a non-profit law firm called Texas Defender Service, helping provide post-conviction appeals for individuals on death row. To my surprise, and contrary to everything I had been told, this man seemed positively fascinated by this information. He began by assuring me that he was completely opposed to capital punishment – off to the perfect start, or so I thought. However, what was to follow shocked me to the core, and offered me a new perspective on judicial execution and ultimately justice.

His face turned pale and his voiced croaked, he explained that his daughter had been murdered during an armed robbery in 1992, and that the killer was executed by the state of Texas as punishment. The feeling of dread and confusion engulfed my brain –nothing in my training with Amicus (the charity organisation that facilitated my internship), had prepared me to handle such a situation. I knew how to talk to clients incarcerated and how to take witness statements from locals, but dealing with the victim’s family was not in my tool kit. Additionally, I was dumbfounded that he had watched the execution and reveled with joy at watching this human being be legally murdered. He continued with venom, “I wanted to watch him suffer, I wanted him to feel pain, the same way my daughter would have done.”

Wait, how, who, what?? This man had just told me he was opposed to capital punishment?! I knew all the academic arguments for and against, but this one had me baffled. How had he deduced from the pro-death penalty premise that capital punishment provides a form of comfort and closure to the victim’s family that capital punishment is wrong? He explained, “what I experienced was not justice, it was an animalistic desire for revenge. I felt a strange pleasure in seeing this man die, but at no point during or since have I thought this was a just or suitable punishment for a democratic state to impose on its individuals.”

Wow – I knew in my mind that capital punishment was morally, legally, and pragmatically repugnant, but who was I to question the victim’s family who sought retributive justice? Well, here was my answer – retributive justice (in the sense of ‘an eye for an eye’) is oxymoronic, there is no justice, it is simple revenge, not the sort of jurisprudence a civilised state should impose.

So, how does my drunken encounter relate to human rights? In an odd way it provides an alternative context to justify this canon of law; especially in the face of the constant criticism it receives from the right wing press, as exemplified this weekend by our Home Secretary in the Mail on Sunday.

Often I read that the Human Right Act is exploited and abused by murderers, rapist and illegal immigrants. These media outlets play off the fear of the citizen, who would want these people to ‘get what they deserve’. Yet, after my revelation in the pub, I hold human rights in even higher regard than I did before this encounter. Human rights not only protects the individual (as I had previously understood), but also protects the state from reducing itself to the level of irrational, injudicious desires; whether this be in deporting a suspected international terrorist (Othman v United Kingdom 2012) or prohibiting ‘inhumane and degrading treatment’ (Soering v United Kingdom 1989). In this context, human rights can be viewed as essential ethical pillars, laid down by law to act as a security net, in order to stop democratic states absorbing the mentality of my American friend. Hence, human rights prohibits actions that satisfy the state’s desires yet are innately unjust. For example, it is understandable that the majority wished for Abu Qatada to be deported to Jordan, in the same way as it is conceivable that the gentlemen took pleasure in watching his daughter’s murderer die. However, it was known that Qatada wouldn’t receive a fair trial, and therefore antithetical to our concept of justice.

In my opinion, we as citizens of the United Kingdom are fortunate to be within the framework of the European Convention of Human Rights. Human rights law helps to protect our rational just selves from our animalistic irrational side – unfortunately, from my experience of the Texas capital punishment system, the irrational often takes precedence.



2 responses to “An eye for an eye: working on death row

  1. Hello mate,

    Good article. – Do you not think the chap you meant who was happy to see the state execute the man who killed his daughter but is not against the death penalty was actually supporting your argument and making you more aware of state necessity to block the death penalty for reasons you weren’t previously aware of?

    I think a high proportion of us when placed first hand in the highly emotive position of having a loved one ill treated/murdered etc develop strong urges for vengeance in a physically harmful manner. That so many of us develop these emotions is exactly why we mustn’t allow the death penalty; the state is also there to protect us from ourselves. Equally, we must have confidence and a firm belief in the state we choose to live in. Living in a state where the death penalty is legal is not a place I would choose to live in (if given the choice) as I do not believe the state has the power, democratically or otherwise, to take life.

    I’m aware this is a moral perception of a legal argument, but I think the example you cite is an excellent example of how the state should be set to protect us when we are at our least rational.

  2. Thank you for an excellent article. I’m one of many providing what little support is possible for a Texas death row prisoner, and hoping that his sentence may eventually be commuted to life without parole, the only possible one available for him. The more I read about Texas “justice,” the more I see it as an abomination, and one that needs to be changed. But those wheels are massive and they roll on despite all attempts to slow them down.

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